Closed society

by Khalid Albaih

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

In Sudan in 1989 my father, like many other professionals and civil servants, lost his job due to his political leanings. Most Sudanese in exile ended up in the Arabian Gulf, which was powered by the oil boom and needed workers to fuel its dramatic growth and needed workers. So, in 1990, we ended up moving to Doha, Qatar.

In Sudan, there were people of different colours, religions and social classes but the population was mostly Sudanese. Arriving in Doha, the diversity was new to me. All of a sudden I encountered Yemeni and Sudanese policemen, red-henna-bearded Pakistani or Afghani taxi drivers, Indian supermarkets and restaurants, Palestinian and Egyptian teachers, Filipino nurses and waiters, Arab francophone sports teachers, Somali athletes. There were lots of stereotypes. It was the perfect place for a cartoonist to grow up. Doha was a one city country: Everyone was either your neighbour, or went to the same school, or you played sports together. However, Doha in the early 90’s was at a standstill in terms of development . Nothing much happened. When we travelled abroad people couldn’t pin point the country unless I located it in relation to the Gulf War: “It's next to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia”.

We, some 500,000 of us who made up Doha's middle class of mostly Arabs and Asians, lived in low-rise apartment buildings among Qatari neighbours who lived in traditional style houses. Every neighbourhood had its own park, some times just a parking lot, where kids played football and the Masjed where most people met five times a day. The lower class was small, the south Asian workers who lived in shared accommodation in the middle of the neighbourhoods. The top class was the royals, high-status Qatari families who lived in mansions in or around Doha. However, they were not cut off from the rest of society as most people went to the same schools and restaurants. Despite the constant stereotyping, the financial stability and mix of professionals from numerous nationalities in a small area created an open and accepting society.  Meanwhile, almost all of the Westeners mostly lived in gated communities that cut them off from the rest of society and assured a European lifestyle despite being in a Muslim or Arabic country. The Westerners' kids, on the other hand, sometimes rebelled and mingled with the locals. Some of my best friends still call Doha home.

In 1996, the ambitious crown prince Shk Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani took over as The Amir in a bloodless coup against his father. After that Qatar went from being a small state no one knew the name of to it, to “the tiny oil rich country”- as the media later nicknamed it. That step single-handedly changed the region, along with its the LNG (liquefied natural gas) money and the international reach of Aljazera.

Now, fast forward nearly 25 years. The increase in national income and introduction of new industrial and financial sectors has revitalised the economy; Doha's population has boomed nearly four times. The economic changes triggered physical urban changes. Suddenly, The city outgrew itself.

But today's Doha is a different city than the one I grew up in. It is awash with new neighbourhoods, new highways, an ever-expanding airport, man-made islands, real estate that is fully rented before it is even constructed, bigger stadiums and countless malls. I now get lost the same way I did when I arrived in Doha as a 10 year old.

Albadaa, Doha's historic centre, is the first neighbourhood I lived in. My bedroom window overlooked the Amiri palace, where most Qatari families had their traditional family houses and where kids lined up to get money in Eid or sweets in Grangao during Ramadan. This history has been flattened and replaced with a park. My second house is now a five star hotel and my high school is a football stadium. Both were in the historic Alsaad area.

These new buildings reflect how the country has been striving break free from its dependency on oil and gas and showcases Qatar's vision of its future.

The Qataris who were once our neighbours have been given land and money to build modern style high walled houses in the new suburbs of Doha, alongside yet more gated communities for westerners. Meanwhile, the few traces of old Doha that were left have been erased through the demolition of their old houses to make way for new developments in downtown Doha or the low-cost, high-rent residential tiny unit apartment buildings, which host the swelling population of Arabs and Asians. Meanwhile, incoming Westerners flock to the lavish man-made island of The Pearl, while thousands of south Asian construction workers are packed in Labour cities on the outskirts of Doha's industrial area. Each of these areas has its own sports grounds, its own malls and, in effect, forms its own, distinct world. That separation created blind spots, mainly towards the migrant workers.

International media often present migrant workers as one coherent group. Against this backdrop, I created @DohaFashionFridays, an instagram account which shows the“the workers" as individuals by documenting their fashion choices. It shows the diverse styles workers wear when many of them congregate on a certain part of the Doha Cornice on Fridays, the single day most workers have free every week. Crossed between Humans of NewYork and a street fashion blog, the series of photos shows workers, mostly from south-east Asia, dressed to impress.

Doha is not a city of visible divisions, but many live and work in their separate realms. It is a country still in the process of forging a national identity. I miss the young and simple Doha of my childhood. But I guess we all need to grow up. The same goes for cities.

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